Initialled Cornish pasties

I came home the other day to find that Mr Graphic Foodie had gone all creative and made these - initialled Cornish pasties! If I wasn't having a big fat Italian wedding I would freaking serve these up for the reception!

I would divulge the recipe but the pastry is my mother's secret recipe and she hasn't given it to me yet. I am not joking when I say it is the best pastry on the planet. Michelin bloody starred it is. Beautifully crumbly, savory and rich, we use it for a multitude of things from chicken pies to sweet tarts. I have never, ever, ever, never tasted better. Maybe she keeps it secret from me as the recipe would reveal an artery clogging cocktail of ingredients? Who knows, but for now I just get a slab of prepared pastry from her on request, despite my pleading doe eyes. Mean isn't she?

REVIEW: Terre á Terre, Brighton

Warning: The following comment may offend some readers.

I thought Terre á Terre was...ok.

I say that because this restaurant has an almost religious sect following and I can imagine the hordes of people with flaming torches waiting for me outside. It's one of Brighton's leading restaurants and locals really do have an affection for the place. The Observer Food Awards voted it best for vegetarian food in the UK... yadda, yadda, yadda.

First off, the gigantic menu was a bit crazy. There was not loads on it, which is good, but the thing was massive. This must be the place for visually impaired vegetarians, because you could read it from across the street. And you don't want to sit down with your companion only for any conversation to be immediately obliterated by a huge sheet of card. Nuts.

Anyway, what was on it sounded fantastic and was seductively written so the only possible choice would be some starters and the Terre á Tapas, a selection of items from the whole menu because I couldn't pick.

I had soup which was... ok. Roasted pepper served with fresh focaccia. The good - I liked the flaked almonds on top and the focaccia was fabulous.

The Tikka Kachumber starter–a tikka halloumi kebab–failed to pack a flavor punch. It was balanced, it was tasty but the lack of spice depth made it feel something was missing. Boring.

The impressive looking Terre á Tapas came along and cheered me up a bit. It was essentially bits and pieces from the menu - an assortment of salads, pulses, baba ganoush dip, deep fried corn cakes, noodles and battered hallumi. It also included the most intensely flavoured tofu I had ever eaten. I usually can't stand the stuff as it's bland, but now I know I don't like it with flavour either. Most of it was lovely, good quality ingredients and well prepared but not sure how I feel about the £19 price tag (for two) and the fact it felt like all the items had the same base ingredients.

I like the concept. Vegetarian food with out the hippy yogurt weaving connotations - a safe environment for us meat eaters on a night off. Smart, professional and well presented food. So what's my problem?

Maybe it was because it was lunchtime and dinner may have a bit more va va voom, I don't know. It wasn't Terre á Terrible but it wasn't terrific either and really do not get the hype. How can I sum it up? I would say I had a really good mediocre meal. Anyone agree / disagree? Someone change my mind so I go back for dinner. Until then I'm off to the steak house.

Summer is on its way

My new thing is to try and be a tourist in my own town a bit more and catch more of the coast. I can easily go for a lunchtime stroll or walk back home along the coast but it's something I've never done, fool that I am. Without sounding like some corny old self-help manual, it is so important to remember the simple pleasures in life.

That still sounded lame didn't it?

RECIPE: Potato gnocchi

I've always been on the fence with gnocchi. Often stodgy, sometimes gluey, occasionally pappy. It is hard to get them spot on and seems like everyone likes them a different consistency. They are a really old Italian tradition (dating back as far as the 1300s) and you will find that different regions produce and serve them in different ways (as with everything!)

We always make potato gnocchi in our family but you can find them made from semolina, bread or ricotta. The quantities below will feed 4 people handsomely.

1kg potatoes (old starchy potatoes are the best)
200g plain flour (but you can end up using quite a bit more depending on your potatoes)
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt

Steam the potatoes until they are tender - I just shove my colander on my biggest saucepan. Steaming them is better than boiling them as they will have held less water, forming the gnocchi better. Mash whilst they are still hot (very important). Stir in the flour, egg, salt and when it is cool enough to handle, knead to a soft dough. The dough must be right, so be careful with the flour, adding it cautiously at first and not being afraid of adding more. If there is too much flour they will be hard like bullets and if they are too soft they will fall apart in cooking (don't ask my mum about her infamous gnocchi soup day.)

Now for the fun bit! Roll the dough into long sausages about 1.5cm thick then cut into pieces on the diagonal about 1.5cm wide. Press them gently in the middle to form a little scoop where the sauce can sit nicely.

As soon as you have finished them, place them in a pan of boiling water with a pinch of salt. They should float to the surface after just a few minutes when you should remove them with a slotted spoon.

In our neck of the woods, we like to serve them with broccoli or cauliflower, a bit of thick, basic tomato sauce and a good shaving of Parmesan or Pecorino. The greens really do help to balance the dish and prevent it being too heavy.

A brilliant cheap eat dish!

REVIEW: EL Mexicano, Brighton

I thought I might try the new Jamie Oliver restaurant in town last night, but there was a triple layer queue to get in and my rumbling stomach was having none of that.

Also, having eaten a lot of fish and veg this week, I was in a dire need of a meat fix. For the life of me I could not think of any good places for steak and didn't want anything too formal, so we stumbled past the bustling El Mexicano in New Road and it seemed a good idea. Last time I went here was a good few years ago and I remembered the food was quite good. Spicy steak sizzling on a skillet? Oh yes, count me in.

Mr Graphic Foodie being a nacho obsessed simpleton always has to have them as a starter. They arrived with a sprinkling of cheese and some insipid salsa that tasted like it was from a jar. You had to order the guacamole and sour cream separately apparently which is like serving spaghetti and charging extra for the sauce. In any case they were cinema nacho standard at best.

I went for the sopes as I saw a picture of some in the week and they looked generous, rich and delicious. What arrived was two little pathetic tasteless corn discs topped with some half arsed salad and chorizo cubes. And what the fajita is that cucumber, tomato and unidentifed cream blob doing there? What is is doing? If I were in power, the first law I would put into practice is forbidding pointless garnishing.

I was almost dreading the main meals coming by now. I ordered the Gorditas de Res, shredded beef brisket parcels covered in a thin batter, served in a spicy tomato sauce with rice, refried beans and another freaking 80s salad garnish with thick vinegarette. Mr GF ordered the beef enchipotlada which was drowned in the same tomato sauce. Both were perfectly palletable and the brisket was very tender. My dish had a good level of heat but there was no real taste spark and the watery separation of the tomato sauce suggested a reheat. Two mouthfuls in and I was bored.

Looking at both our dishes and at the other tables, what was becoming apparent was that this is the sort of Mexican restaurant where there are a core set of sauces and ingredients that are just presented differently or the tortillas folded another way to form all of the items on the menu. You know the type. The same tomato sauces, the same beige refried beans and salad garnish on everything. I don't think any of the dishes have been individually considered. They must just make vats of these basics and reheat them to serve. Lazy little wotsits.

I always paruse the desert menu before ordering mains and really had my eye on the chick pea cake with orange but didn't want to take the risk of it turning up with that tomato sauce or that salad garnish. This restaurant makes it's money in it's prime location in the theatre district and the passing trade. The rough and ready atmosphere is fantastic if you want something informal and cosy and I must say the staff were great but they really need to pull their socks up on the food which is not terrible, but overpriced for the mediocre dishes they offer. Had it been cheaper and had pictures on the menu then fine, because you would have know it was that sort of place.

On review sites elsewhere there seems to be a love it or hate it mentality and a few do rate this restaurant quite highly. But would I personally recommend El Mexicano or go back here? 'El no.

El Mexicano
7 New Road, Brighton, BN1 1UF
Telephone: +44 (1273) 727766

Crispy chicken with pancetta and butter beans and the death of the cookbook

Have I ever mentioned how much I love the BBC Good Food website? Brilliantly photographed food and the recipes just work. Seriously, some recipes aren't even tested in some publications. The usability of the site has been thought about and although I don't use it, it has a binder feature that remembers all your saved recipes. Brilliant for inspiration.

I made this chicken with pancetta and butter beans from it for a family dinner and it went down a storm. It's a kind of take on a chicken cacciatore but a bit snazzier and I particularly love it as butter beans are my new thing. The pancetta really gave the sauce a good smoky flavour and rosemary, tomatoes and chicken go together like a er, horse and carriage.

My obsession with the BBC GF site got me thinking. The internet has had me cracking my cookbooks open less often than I used to and there is an ongoing question as to whether the internet has killed them. True, with all the great food blogs out there and instant searchability on offer it is easy to forget about the old faithfuls on the shelf.

I love the quick identification for a strange ingredient you have come across or an instant solution to a lumpy sauce crisis you are in. But you will have a hard job getting me to part with my books because they are more than a just a bound collection of recipes. Good cookbooks have a sense of story running through them and a narrative to bind the recipes. They can be so beautifully designed and photographed that they are tactile pieces of art - look at Heston Blumenthal's latest effort designed by Purpose. Stunning.

I particularly like the fact you can annotate and personalise your books. My mother's dog-eared, dust jacketless and yellowing copy of her Mrs Beeton Book of Household Management, is full of scribbles and has about twenty casual and hilariously all-Italian (as it's a traditional English cuisine book) recipes handwritten by her on the inside covers. Amongst them a recipe for a much-loved cagionetti recipe from my aunt, another for pickling peppers which reminds me of the pungent, nose singeing vinegar smell in the house when she made them and my dad whingeing about it. Priceless history. You are not going to pass on your saved bookmarks and links are you?

Cooks and chefs tend to be incredibly passionate people and I like the lively conversational aspect that the books give. Yes, I know blogs are pure conversation and personality but I see them as a quick catch up in the street, a fleeting hello and lovely to see you where as the books offer a nice long sit down and chat. Both are great and have their place and in fact, some of the more established food bloggers have gone on to publish their own books.

There is no going back for me now, the internet is an essential part of my kitchen as the pots and pans but my books are also here to stay in all their ingredient splattered glory. For one you can't cover you laptop in flour and egg and get away with it like a book, can you?

What do you think?

Italian celebration aftermath

I went to this really great Italian baptism the other day. Baptisms are a pretty big celebration for us and how do we celebrate best? Eating!

I loved the set up of this "little Italy" in an English church hall; traditional homemade wine in gigantic bottles, baked aubergines, huge terrines of meatballs, platters of Parma ham, turkey escalopes, two whole salmons, grilled peppers all made by hand and with love by the family. Wonderful.

Growing up on these huge eating feasts I thought I had it in the bag this time by selecting a modest plate of food. Then I saw the dessert table and proceeded to eat a cheese board, a pile of profiteroles, strawberries and a huge plate of tiramisu.

Then they brought out the traditional pastries as shown in the picture above (from Zingarella's Patisserie in Brighton, I think.) Look - they are in arms reach for god-sake! What chance did I have? Although I must say my father was guilty for the disappearance of a good quarter of those! Then they cut the baptism cake. How may desserts is that now? Mr Graphic Foodie even said I had tiramisu breath!

What gluttonous shame.

REVIEW: Scoop & Crumb, Brighton

Now in the full throes of my ice cream bender, I met my friend for a sugar lunch at Scoop & Crumb, an attractively kitsch fronted independent ice cream parlor in Brighton.

The big whoop is that all the ice cream is made in-house using locally sourced milk. Rock on. As soon as we walked in we were offered a taste of any of the flavours and part of me wanted to go across the whole selection which I am sure they would have let me do.

They apparently have the largest ice cream sundae menu in the UK and reading through it takes a good 15 minutes at a scan. One that stood out for me was a Fried Egg sundae, a scoop of orange ice cream floated on a vanilla milkshake! They do mini sundaes for very small children at half a scoop with toppings, a monster of a 12 scoop with all the trimmings and everything in between. Hot, cold, classic splits, floats, shakes... the world is your ice cream oyster. They also have cakes, pastries and some savory open sandwiches thrown in for good measure if the sugar gets too much.

My partner in cream had the waffles with a scoop of strawberry ice cream and wild berry sauce and I reluctantly shunned the sundaes for a targeted attack on three specific flavours, choosing a scoop each of rhubarb sorbet, orange and honeycomb ice cream. There was sadly, oh so sadly, no pistachio flavour to compare to Marrocco's or Fusciardi's.

The waffle got a huge thumbs up and although my ice creams were good and tasted fresh and natural, they could have had a little more pout flavour-wise but that has not deterred my return. The rhubarb sorbet was my favorite and the sharp fruit refreshingly shone through.

The interior of this place is lovely, largely white with accent colours inspired by ice cream. There is a larger seating area upstairs with huge windows to peer out at the strange and wonderful world of Brighton. During our visit there was a large group of umpa lumpas in the pub opposite, causing havoc in the street below and providing photo opportunities and laughter for the passers by. One of them spotted us and actually came upstairs in Scoop and Crumb to say hello to us and scare the small children. They were celebrating a divorce apparently! Only in Brighton.

Scoop & Crumb
5-6 East Street
Brighton BN1 1HP
1273 202563

Hot Cross Buns

I stopped buying hot cross buns a few years ago and true, it is pretty galling picking up ingredients to make your own when a supermarket pack of six is under a pound - I even think they are currently on offer for 35p for half a dozen in one of the big stores.

But the doughy, spongy, shop bought buns are not a match for the ones you can bake at home and it fills the whole house with a gorgeous smell of spice.

The recipe I have settled on over the last couple of years is one from–sharp intake of breath–Delia Smith. She usually isn't my first port of call but I guess these buns are traditional no nonsense fare and that is her forte.

The only thing that I have changed, other than adding more spice, is the method to make the crosses. The first year I made them using Delia's method, they almost broke your teeth. The second year I used another recipe and they spread over the buns too much. This year I made a really thick paste from flour and water and piped the crosses on using a freezer bag, snipping off the end. Success.

Love them. Easter wouldn't be the same without a pile of these and some salty butter to spread on them.

Homemade pasta

Homemade pasta is one of those simple pleasures in life that no one should be without. Takes you back to your playdough days so it does.

From such basic ingredients you can make a plate of tasty, comforting carby goodness.

I always use the basic pasta recipe from the Silver Spoon cook book, which I will post about at a late date because it's as essential as your left lung to own. It says you need 200g of plain Italian type 00 flour and 2 eggs for 4 people, but I always do 100g / 1 egg per person. Oink. Bar a pinch of salt that is your basis for fresh pasta.

Sift the flour into a mound and make a little well in the centre. Crack the eggs into the well and add the pinch of salt. Using a fork, gradually combine the flour and the egg, working from the inside out. Using a larger quantity of the ingredients makes this easier as your flour "mountain" is less likely to erupt and have an egg overflow, but that is all part of the fun and games - just clear a big space on the worktop!

Knead the dough for a good 10 minutes and really let those emotions go! Some of the best pasta I've made is when I have had a hard week at work. If the dough is too soft or sticky, add more flour and if too hard add a little water. It is only experience that lets you know when you have it right, but it's not rocket science, it should be firm, elastic and smooth.

Shape into a ball, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge to rest for 15 mins to half an hour.

You can the roll out the pasta to make sheets by hand using those really long rolling pins if you have one or use a pasta machine and then cut your tagliatelle, lasagna, ravioli or tortellini.

This time for my ravioli I did a spiced mince beef filling but I also like the classic ricotta or even a roasted squash filling. Experiment, just make sure the filling is not too liquid and the edges are sealed well. I use a little ravioli wheel for the edges as it seems to secure the little parcels better.

I just need to work on getting the pasta even thinner than it is here, but it the thinner you roll out you pasta the harder it is to manage. Traditionally the pasta sheet is left quite thick than we are used to today in restaurants or shop bought. My mother's pasta is still this thicker traditional type and I love it, but I do go a bit thinner myself.

I always make "a little" tagliatelle while I have the machine out too. It cooks better if you leave it on the side to dry for a while and when that's done, you can pop on trays and freeze it, transferring it into a bag once frozen for space saving. Brilliant for super quick midweek meals - sling it still frozen straight into boiling water.

And that's it. Just remember when cooking fresh pasta to add olive oil to the boiling water to prevent sticking.

Brown Sugar Hearts

How sweet is this idea?

Box of 64 brown sugar hearts, £20.00 from Cox & Cox

Thai Monk cocktail at Blanch House, Brighton

I have this thing where if I think something on a menu is going to be weird tasting I have to order it. Taste experimenter extraordinaire me. So imagine my delight in seeing a cocktail that read like a Thai green curry recipe.

This little find was on the menu at Blanch House, a tucked away boutique guest house in Brighton with very well revered cocktails and a superb restaurant. They are also well-known for their interior, slickly designed but comfortable and the bar unpretentiously classy. Not many people know about it or pass it (so shhh) and you have to knock to get in, so the bar is nice and quiet, devoid of any riff-raff and the bar staff are not gap year travellers. These guys think a lot about drink. In fact, this time we were treated to an impromptu gin tasting session with the barman and a short history of gin making and different botanicals. Brilliant. We only asked his opinion on which gin to order.

The picture shows the Thai Monk cocktail which really stopped me in my tracks. It was created by Blanch House as a competition entry and although it didn't win, it's kooky flavour hit the spot for me. With chilli and honey infused wyborowa, noisette liqueur, ginger and lemongrass cordial and coco syrup it was a really unusual flavor and one I'd recommend if you were passing.

I've been here a few times now and it's always been good, despite the headaches and huge card bills the following morning (how do I remember my pin number after 4 cocktails?) Working your way thorough the menu is a delight and yes it is pricey, but for drinks you are only paying a pound or two more than the chain bars in town. For the quality of ingredients and the attentive and knowledgeable staff, that's a couple of pennies well spent.

Blanch House
17 atlingworth street
bn2 1pl